Out With The Old, In With The New. What That Means For Mental Health Care.

If you’re an employer or in HR at your company, you may have noticed something disturbing in your company’s health care expenses.  Expenses for mental health care are going up.  That trend started happening prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has just added fuel to the fire.

What you may not have noticed is that mental health issues are affecting other expenses as well.  One of those expenses is the cost related to employee turnover.  According to a 2019 study by Mind Share Partners, Qualtrics and SAP, half of millennials and 75% of Gen Zers have left a job for mental health reasons.  And that was before the extraordinary levels of stress and anxiety being reported since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Why am I just referring to millennials and Gen Z ? Because the incidence of mental health problems with these generations is much higher than all prior generations.  As these generations become a larger segment of the workforce, the expense burden of mental health care will get heavier for businesses to bear.

Let’s look at what’s behind this trend and what employers need to do about it.

Mental Health Care and Younger Generations

As reported last year by CNBC, the Mind Share Partners study was one of many studies that shows that the younger generations suffer more from mental illnesses.  Per the CNBC report, younger people dealt with a mental illness at about three times the rate of the general population. The findings are corroborated by another recent study, which shows that while the amount of serious psychological distress increased across most age groups, the largest increase between 2008 and 2017 was among adults ages 18–25, at 71%. For adults ages 20–21, the figure was 78%.

Another recent study, by the American Psychological Association, found the percentage of young adults experiencing certain types of mental health disorders has increased significantly in the past decade. In particular, the percentage of people dealing with suicidal thoughts increased 47 percent from 2008 to 2017.

Why Are Younger Generations Experiencing More Mental Health Issues?

There is no agreement among experts as to the reason for this troubling trend. Here are three different opinions from an author, research professor and psychologist who have studied the subject.

As reported on CNBC, Jean Twenge, author of iGen, a book about the effect technology has on this generation, says that “the rise of the smartphone and social media have at least something to do with it.”

Twenge noted how teens and young adults are spending less time face-to-face with others and more time on their screens. “The pattern lines up very precisely that the majority of Americans owned a smartphone from the beginning of 2012 to 2013,” she said. She noted that at that time, mental health issues began to spike.

“Less time sleeping, less time on face-to-face interactions is not a formula for better mental health,” added Twenge.

Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, said that it’s not social media or young people’s fractured attention spans that are causing their anxiety; it is school itself.

According to Gray, since the mid-1950s society has gradually taken away children’s internal locus of control (someone with an internal locus of control is likely to believe that both successes and failures are due to their own efforts).

As a result, many young people today are lost. “Since the mid-1950s, when they began taking  away children’s play, people haven’t learned to take control of their own lives.” Gray said that control is essential to ward off excessive anxiety.

A third perspective comes from Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist.  Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explored the subject in  The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Lukianoff noticed that many Generation Z college students seemed to hold beliefs that make them vulnerable to depression and anxiety—beliefs that often fly in the face of the best-tested wisdom from the ancients. “The small percentage of ideas that came down to us from the ancients came through a filtering process where only the best, most resonant, most helpful ideas made it down through thousands of years,” said Haidt.

Haidt cited the “Three Great Untruths” that seem to be driving mental health struggles in Gen Z:

  1. You are fragile. Haidt said it was as though students were led to believe that “if they encountered something that was offensive to them, they would be made weaker by it.” This belief is the opposite of the timeless truth that strength comes through managing life’s challenges, captured in Nietzsche’s maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  2. If you feel it, it must be true. Students seemed to have learned that “they should always trust their feelings,” said Haidt. This belief flies in the face of wise counsel that teaches that our feelings are unreliable sources of information. Learning to question our automatic emotional reactions is an invaluable skill in navigating life, and our relationships in particular.
  3. Life is about Us versus Them. Haidt also said that many students seem to believe “they should see life as a battle between good people”—those who agree with them—”and evil people”—those who hold opposing beliefs.

Taken together, these three beliefs led many students—especially at elite colleges and universities—to see themselves as the fragile protagonists in a battle against evil. Haidt described how these beliefs set up students for depression and anxiety.  “The country is facing rising rates of anxiety, depression and fragility among today’s teens and college students, many of whom have been surrounded by protective adults their entire lives. What will happen when they enter the real world?” Those students studied by Haidt have been entering into the real world as part of your workforce.

What Should Employers Do?

End Mental Health Stigma

First and foremost, employers need to take the lead in reducing the stigma of mental health.  Approximately 40% of people suffering from anxiety or depression don’t come forward for care due to mental health stigma.  Developing a culture of openness and acceptance begins at the top.

Fran Katsoudas, chief people officer at Cisco, recalled that after the deaths of celebrities Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade last year, the company’s CEO, Chuck Robbins, sent out a company-wide email addressing the issues of mental health and suicide.

Robbins encouraged employees to “talk openly and extend compassion” and asked that they “have each other’s backs.”

Katsoudas said the response from Robbins’ email was unlike anything the company had ever seen before. “This was a conversation that our employees wanted to have — and not only the conversation, but they needed support.”

As a follow up, one of the first things Cisco did was launch #SafetoTalk, which it calls the first virtual community for employees to come forward and connect weekly with others to share their struggles.

Train Managers

Managers need to be trained on mental health awareness.  They need to recognize the danger signs and know what to do if they believe an employee is in trouble.  Your EAP should be able to help you with this and if not call us at Espyr.

Make Mental Health Care Accessible 

According to one survey, 60% of employees fail to use mental health resources available to them by employers.  Much of this may be due to mental health stigma, but there are other factors as well.  Many programs are poorly promoted so that employee awareness is low.   Accessibility is another issue.  Gen Z ,and to a lesser degree millennials, are digital citizens.  Smartphones are their primary means of communication.  Phone, text and video access options need to be available especially during the pandemic when face to face sessions with a mental health coach or counselor may not be practical or even available.

Use Your Available Resources

Most businesses have an EAP or similar program in place.  Be sure that your EAP is eager to support employee engagement.  Many businesses take advantage of free EAPs offered as part of a bundled health benefits package provided by their benefits broker.  Unfortunately, free EAPs can only make money if employee utilization remains low.  Encouraging employees to take advantage of their programs is antithetical to the business operations of these EAPs.  A good EAP will not only welcome higher utilization, it will help you promote it.

About Espyr

Espyr’s innovative mental health counseling, coaching and consulting programs have been helping employees and organizations achieve their full potential for over 30 years. Companies in some of the most stressful occupations rely on Espyr to maintain their employees health and well being.  For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.